How is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy used to reduce anxiety effectively?

THE LEVEL OF STRESS AND ANXIETY IN THE GENERAL POPULATION IS CURRENT-LY INCREASING AS A RESULT OF UNCERTAINTIES ASSOCIATED WITH THE PAN-DEMIC. FOR MANY PEOPLE, THE LOCKDOWNS AND CRISIS CAUSED BY THE CORONAVIRUS HAVE LED TO ABRUPT DISRUPTIONS IN THEIR LIFESTYLES AND FUTURE PLANS. This is also the case for student study plans and career prospects. Many students have even dropped out of their studies altogether. Others have found themselves pushed into the job market or into higher education with no conventionally certified benchmarks or achievements. In challenging situations such as this, CBT is an effective method for teaching us how to deal with stress and modify behaviours that contribute to our state of stress. Psychologist and Psychotherapist, Yannick Heim, gives us an insight.
stress level

Mynd: In broad terms, how do you define the different levels of stress, and at what point does stress become a problem?

Yannick Heim: Stress is basically the body’s natural reaction to environmental constraints. It enables us to adapt to situations, to a certain degree, and acts by mobilising the body’s resources to face the challenges and demands of daily life. An optimal dose of stress, neither too much nor too little, enables us to perform with greater efficiency for a specific task. Stress becomes harmful when it is prolonged over a long period and leads us to a state of exhaustion. This is because when the body is overburdened, if it works at full capacity for too long, it inevitably ends up burning out its resources.

Mynd: How does CBT help reduce stress and anxiety levels?

Yannick Heim: The first step is to develop an awareness of your state of stress. To do this, we encourage a person to focus on various types of signals related to the body, emotions or cognitive processes. Fatigue, loss of appetite, irritability, and also a lack of concentration are some of the signs that indicate high levels of stress. We then talk about how our environment affects us and how we can increase our ability to control it. In short, it is about analysing the context of our lives and identifying the stress factors within it. And lastly, CBT techniques enable a person to perform self-analysis, to understand how his or her perception of certain situations may lead them to adopt behaviours that, in the long term, may either reinforce or alleviate their perceived levels of stress. The aim is to increase our level of awareness of this virtually unconscious or automatic process. The person is thus able to make a more informed decision about how to deal with his or her situation.

Mynd: In your practice and in the context of the pandemic, what major tendencies have you observed regarding the anxiety levels of your patients, particularly for young people?

Yannick Heim: A loss of direction and a degree of incomprehension regarding the contradictory information they receive. I have definitely observed that many young people who reach the end of their compulsory school education are unsure about which professional path to follow from thereon. There are currently only limited opportunities to explore options through internships, whilst the pressure to secure a course by August 2021 is on, and all this at a time when the end of year exams are fast approaching. And also the current health restrictions, mean that there are few outlets to “let off steam” and decompress.

Mynd: What practical advice would you give them?

Yannick Heim: To seek advice from the adults around them, their parents, and the career guidance services provided by their schools or colleges. And a second word of advice for reducing anxiety levels would be to identify which aspects of our lives we are able to control and which we cannot. There are charts available online, based on the Lazarus stress model, that can help us to do this. So basically, this technique involves writing down what causes us stress, and then identifying which factors we can do something about and which we cannot. This helps us to take a step back from the situation, and allows us to become mindful of not wasting energy on situations or factors that are out of our control.

Heart coherence, or how to reduce stress levels through breathing techniques

Stress and anxiety management is closely linked to physiological factors. Breathing is one of the main gateways to understanding and controlling how our brain and heart react to stress. Breath awareness can be used to reduce stress and anxiety by practising simple breathing exercises three times a day for five minutes. A number of free mobile apps are available to help beginners learn to practise these types of exercises. Various scientific studies have also shown real health improvements on several levels following the regular practice of breathing exercises – improved concentration levels, memory, state of calmness, higher tolerance threshold. One of these exercises is heart coherence. This is a technique that involves sitting peacefully in a quite, calm place and taking deep breaths, inhaling fully for four to five seconds and then exhaling fully for four to five seconds. This breathing technique should feel comfortable. To be effective, the exercise should be repeated several times a day for at least three weeks.

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written by Thomas Pfefferlé

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